Reclaiming Childhood

Freedom and play in an age of fear

Restating the case for human uniqueness

The differences between apes and humans are vast

Last week I wrote a blog - Should apes have rights? - based on a speech I had given at the Institute of Ideas' Battle of Ideas conference in London. It provoked a flood of criticisms, and quite a few insults.

Those who claimed that the only reason I could have for arguing what I am arguing is being a sociopath will no doubt carry on making the same point no matter what I say. But for those who are prepared to engage with ideas - whether or not you agree with them - I hope to clarify a few points.

I strongly believe that today's misanthropic cultural outlook - one that continually denigrates humans and blurs the differences between humans and other animals, needs to be challenged. I have no personal desire to hammer nails into the eyes of cats, and never have had.

Does the argument for human uniqueness have a place in a psychology magazine? Some respondents have argued that it does not. But of course it does (bearing in mind I was writing a blog, not a scientific paper). In my new book, Just Another Ape?, I focus on the differences between human beings and apes - to show just how exceptional humans really are - drawing on a wealth of research from developmental, comparative and cognitive psychology. It is an argument that needs to be put across - not only because it is historically and scientifically correct (even if 'politically incorrect'), but because unless we have faith in our own abilities, society will stagnate. There is ample evidence from various fields within psychology that demonstrates the vast gulf that exists between apes and humans.

It is true that much of what we have learnt about the great apes in the wild is from the work of primatologists such as the three women dubbed 'Leakey's Angels'- Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas. Jane Goodall made a significant breakthrough by showing that chimpanzees not only use but also make tools - using sticks to fish for termites, stones as anvils or hammers, and leaves as cups or sponges. But 'Leakey's angels' never tested their assumptions. Their writings are littered with anthropomorphism - the attribution of human characteristics to animals - and all three women have rejected what they see as the straight-jacket of scientific rigour. As researchers have developed more sophisticated ways of investigating what apes can and cannot do - like at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in Germany and by the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette - the evidence for apes having human-like mental capacities is getting weaker and weaker.

Whatever first impressions might tell us, apes are really not 'just like us'. Most importantly, we humans are the only truly cultural animal - in the sense of being able to learn from each other's clever feats through imitation, reflection and teaching. Because apes do not have this capacity they have not moved beyond their hand-to-mouth existence, and their lives have changed very little in the six million years since we 'split' from our common ancestor.

The differences in language, tool-use, self-awareness and insight between apes and humans are vast. A human child, even as young as two years of age, is intellectually head and shoulders above any ape. However, the question of whether apes have the rudiments of our unique human abilities - abilities that have allowed us to develop language, build cities, create great art and literature and much more - is an interesting one. An exploration of the extent to which apes resemble us may give us some insight into the evolutionary origins of human capabilities, but it will also show us how great the differences are between apes and humans.

This is also the conclusion drawn by Jeremy Taylor in his excellent book Not a Chimp, and by correspondent at the Science magazine Jon Cohen's in his book Almost Chimpanzee.

Finally, back to the question of 'rights'. Many of the responses to my blog reduce rights to 'protection from harm', showing a lack of any historical understanding of the emergence of the concept of rights. For an excellent account of the revolutionary origin of 'rights' read lawyer John Fitzpatrick's review on spiked .I shared the panel at the Battle of Ideas with veteran animal rights campaigner Richard Ryder, the man who coined the term 'speciesism'. He admitted that the rights discourse can muddy the water when discussing animals, as animals clearly cannot be granted rights in the human sense. What Ryder is concerned about is 'painism' and 'protection from harm'. So let's look at the question of whether it is morally wrong to inflict 'pain' on other animals?

For a start that would mean stopping animal research. For how can we justify the use of millions of animals in experiments to further scientific knowledge and save human lives - experiments that include cutting animals open, pumping them full of toxins and carcinogens, and ultimately destroying' them - if it is wrong to inflict pain on other beings, and unless we believe, and are willing to argue, that human beings are morally more valuable than animals?

Many major medical advances - insulin to treat diabetes, polio vaccines, antibiotics, safe anaesthetics, open heart surgery, organ transplantation, drug treatments for ulcers, asthma and high blood pressure, and much more - would not have been won, or would have been introduced at great human cost, if it were not for animal experimentation. There are few people alive today who won't have benefited in some way from such medical advances.

Animal research cannot be soft and cuddly, and because it is necessary for scientific advance - now and for the foreseeable future - it must continue.


Similarly the factory farming of animals - which makes meat-production more efficient and cost-effective - is far from unethical. Surely a more efficient way of feeding the world's population should be celebrated rather than damned? The fact that something isn't pretty doesn't make it morally wrong. People need to eat, and we feed ourselves through farming.

The main challenge we face today is therefore to uphold a human-centred morality, restoring confidence in the capacity of humans to change society for the better. I am not arguing that human beings are naturally all good: human history is undeniably full of evidence of human destructiveness. Human beings are not perfect and never will be, but we are special and unique among the animal kingdom. We have the capacity to reflect on, debate and discuss our shortcomings, and fight for a better society.

 

 

Helene Guldberg, Ph.D., is the author of Reclaiming Childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear.

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